The Sunlight Foundation: Turning Off Its Light?

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light and shadow / jenny downing

September 22, 2016; The Atlantic

Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously said that sunlight is the best disinfectant, by which he meant that exposing corruption theoretically eliminates it. Founded in January 2006 during the second Bush administration, the Washington, D.C.-based Sunlight Foundation deploys open source civic technology to promote transparency in government and enable citizens to become engaged citizens. NPQ values Sunlight’s countless contributions, especially today.

The Sunlight Foundation is in trouble. Its technical division, Sunlight Labs, is shutting down. The Sunlight Foundation has laid off about 20 percent of its staff and is investigating alliances, mergers, and other transition plans after being unable to find a suitable executive director, according to board chair and founder Mike Klein.

The foundation’s many projects having to do with open data, policy analysis and journalism make our government and politics more accountable. The foundation began with a focus on the U.S. Congress and broadened its reach to local, state, federal, and international levels.

What happened? In short, the accelerated rate of technological advances surpassed Sunlight as a leading transparency innovator as other groups entered into the open government space, and the 2010 Sunlight-mission-insulting U.S. Supreme Court decision Citizens United caused the political financing system to become awash in “dark money.”

Sunlight’s and Sunlight Labs’ respective public declarations prompt Robinson Meyer, writing for The Atlantic, to notice inconsistencies in the messaging.

Taken together, the posts presented ominous but confusing news. By Wednesday, Sunlight’s acting director had to clarify that the organization wasn’t actually closing. “Nothing’s been decided,” he tweeted. “Still here.” Alex Howard, a policy analyst at Sunlight, confirmed on Twitter that the organization was not shutting down.

Developers and civic programmers mourned the Sunlight Foundation on Twitter anyway. And from my perspective, Sunlight’s crisis of confidence seemed to crystallize an uneasy moment in the field of civic technology.

Was Sunlight simply ahead of its time? Does the mountain of data Sunlight provides require sophisticated specialists rather than the typical citizen to make sense of it? Or is the public not interested enough in digging to put it to use? How does any nonprofit sustain its founding vision and energy, especially once the founding visionary executive director leaves, as Ellen Miller did in 2014?

Only 16 months after replacing Miller, the new executive director, Chris Gates, resigned with little explanation. Sunlight’s failed search to find a new leader is a primary reason given for closing down.

Meyer also offers this observation, a point of stress that some NPQ readers can likely relate to: “It had not received a new multimillion-dollar grant for operating costs since 2012. Its founder and chairman, Mike Klein, provided at least $9.5 million to the organization in general support since its founding.”

As noted, Sunlight Foundation stated that it would seek to merge its assets with another group and has not said it is definitely shutting down, despite the closing of Sunlight Labs and what appears to be a “pre-winding-down” strategy. Sunlight Labs’ technology being open-sourced, it is the public’s property. Many of the Labs’ projects may find a new home, while others will still be available, though not officially supported, to those wishing to use them.—James Schaffer